Tag Archives: talk4writing

Single and multi clause sentences – an analogy

The new national curriculum this year brought with it some changes in grammatical terminology. One of these changes saw simple, compound and complex sentences become single clause, multi clause coordinated and multi clause subordinated sentences. This post explains an analogy to teach this aspect of grammar. 

The analogy (and a smattering of storytelling – good for memory, you know) is to do with living arrangements. The first picture is of Serena. She is an adult who lives by herself, earning money, buying food etc. This is a bit like a single clause sentence: one main clause makes up the sentence. 

The second picture is of Mike and Jean, two adults who could live alone if they wanted to but they choose to live together, sharing all the responsibilities that come with having your own home. This is a bit like a multi clause coordinated sentence: multiple main clauses can be joined in a sentence by coordinating conjunctions. The final picture is of Hardeep and her infant son Gurnek. She is an adult who could live alone, but the child cannot. The child needs the adult. This is a bit like a multi clause subordinated sentence: a main clause is joined to (a) subordinate clause(s) by a subordinating conjunction. 
When children get to know these characters and their situations well, they can link the grammatical terminology to that knowledge. Through lots of spaced practice, in the context of a story or text they know well, they can begin to build their concept of sentence types.

One type of practice can be sorting sentences, modelled first:

  A possible scaffold is to text mark important features for some children, then gradually remove the text marking. Main clauses, subordinated clauses or conjunctions can be underlined, italicised etc. 

The challenge can be increased by changing the context. Grammar through well known picture books is a fruitful strategy not just to work on grammar, but to deepen their understanding of story. The task below uses ‘Leon and the Place Between’:

The next screenshot is of some development work on multi clause coordinated sentences: children weren’t familiar with the use of the conjunction ‘for’:

Many children still needed a lot of explanation and practice thinking about the difference between main and subordinated clauses, again in the context of a well known story:

 Children seemed to found it useful, to begin with, to analyse the sentences using the analogy. Which part of the sentence is a like Hardeep, the mum? Why? Which bit is like Gurnek, the baby? Why? Gradually, the analogy makes way for the grammatical terminology. This strategy was also useful to talk about about the use of a comm a as a clause boundary when the subordinate clause starts the sentence. 

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Language acquisition and reading comprehension

Understanding the spoken and written word relies on, amongst other things, word knowledge.  Language aquisition then is part of English teaching that we cannot afford to get wrong.  My thinking in this post is a reflection on reading Time to Talk by Gross; Bringing Words to Life by Beck, McKeown and Kucan; Developing Reading Comprehension by Clarke, Truelove, Hulme and Snowling and Teacing Literacy by Wray.

Getting the explanation of the text right

It is undoubtedly sound advice to analyse a text meant for children to study with the following question in mind: Which bits are children likely to find difficult to understand?’ In any text, the background knowledge of the reader contributes significantly to comprehension, so extracting the required knowledge to understand the references is a must. In the text I’m using (Kensuke’s Kingdom extract (Gibbons) – T4W), children need to know the following schemas to make sense of the main events:

  • The ‘deserted on an island, waiting for rescue’ schema
  • The ‘hunting wild animals’ schema

The explanation of these concepts will come first in a simple explanation of the story structure.


This way, children will have some prior knowledge with which aspects of the story can fit in with. Further knowledge will of course be needed. They’ll need to know what an orang-utan is!

There’ll be some words that children will not know the meaning of which will become the focus on the language acquisition section of the unit. Here, I’m looking for ‘tier 2’ words; words that are tricky but functional.  Words that are unfamilar but the concept is one that children can understand and talk about.  Tier 1 words are common words that most children come across early in learning English, while tier 3 words are domain specific words. More on language acquisition later.


After words that may hinder comprehension of the text, I’ll look for phrases that may do so. Idiomatic phrases that children may have never come across before can be tricky for native English speakers let alone those with English as a second language. In the story I’m using, the narrator says ‘I had my work cut out at the back.’ I’ll need to show children the clues around that sentence and use them to explain the meaning.

Once the tricky phrases have been identified, I’ll be looking for examples of the writers’ decision making that create particular effects. The effect of this short story is that we feel worried for the characters. Before we read this story together, I’ll want to have a good idea of which bits do that best and which bits don’t work so well.

Finally, I’ll want to draw attention to the bits that the writer includes because they are crucial to the development of the plot. Certain objects or places are mentioned which may seem, to the inexperienced reader, to be irrelevant at the time but as skilled readers, we know that the writer has woven these things into story on purpose and that they must be important. The same goes for the characters’ actions. The writer, with supreme puppetry, has full control over the characters for the development of the plot and children need to know this and what it looks like.

The result of this thinking is an annotated version of the story which clarifies my thinking on the most important bits, the bits that are most likely to hinder children’s reading comprehension. Thinking clarified, this can be shared with colleagues teaching the same text as well as used when a cover teacher is teaching a lesson in the unit.


Language acquisition

Before the unit of work will have begun, the tier 2 words (tricky yet functional) will have been identified. Mastery of a language takes years but we aim for marginal improvements and as such, must set up multiple encounters with new words and phrases, where children think hard about their meanings and applications.

Word meanings are best learned in context – asking children to look up words in a dictionary should not be the cornerstone of language acquisition! There is a trade-off though. Language is best acquired in context, say a story, but comprehension of that story relies on, amongst other things, word knowledge. So here’s my idea

1. Summarise the text with a general structure supported by images.  This summary, referred to at the beginning of this post, will do nicely.


2. Provide the focus word in a sentence from the text.  Children may need a little help allocating the sentence into the appropriate place in the summary, but through summary and sentence, I’m providing a context for the new word.

3. Provide an image and explanation.  Now’s the time to explain the meaning of the word using the image, which will later become a memory prompt for recalling the meaning. It’s important to have a fluid explanation so that children don’t form an incomplete, context specific understanding of the meaning of the word. This is helped by step 4…

4. Show examples from different contexts.  This will help to highlight shades of meaning.

5. Processing of the vocabulary. At this point, having heard a clear explanation of the word, its meaning and its application, children are to think hard about it, for otherwise, it won’t stick. Two ideas are:

  • Relate it to words they already know. For example, ‘When you’re exhausted, you’re really tired. Tell your partner how it feels…’
  • Suggest situations in their lives that relate to the new word. For example, ‘When you’ve just finished PE, you could say that you’re exhausted. When else could you say that you’re exhausted?’

My thinking is that this is necessary before children work on comprehending the text at a deeper level. This preparation, followed by modelled and shared reading, re-reading and retelling, ‘book talk’, annotations and text marking, responding to questions etc will prime children to comprehend the text. When children do all these things, they’ll be using all those focus words, but more will be necessary in order for children to internalise it.

Remembering the vocabulary

If children are to be able to recall the meaning of a word and use it accurately when speaking or writing, then they need to deliberately practise those things. A lot. Here are six ‘low stakes testing’ question styles, taken from ‘Bringing Words to Life’ (Beck, McKeown and Kucan), to get children remembering and thinking about the language:

Review meaning with a question

The quality of the question is in the detail. Asking whether a word means this or that can cause some hard thinking if those two meanings are very similar or centre around known misconceptions.

Does scrambling mean ‘struggling to stay on your feet’ or ‘moving quickly’?

Cloze sentences

This is self explanatory, but the quality is in the subtle shifting of context. When explaining the word ‘gather’, I would not have used the context of gathering up some drawings so this may cause some deliberation within a selection of other sentences

After a few minutes, I decided to _______ up my drawings and head home.  (Children would have a number of sentences and all of the a focus words to choose from.)

Example or non-example?

Again, the quality comes from the minimally different scenarios which zero in on the possible misconception. Children choose which sentence is an example of the word in action and which is not.


Mel broke Zac’s toy so she screamed and threw herself to floor.

Mel broke Zac’s toy so she stared at him and marched towards him with her fists clenched.

Word replacement

Quite simply, a sentence where one of the words can be replaced with one of the focus words.

She seemed troubled and Mrs Ricker wanted to help. (The focus word is ‘agitated’, but children will have to select from all of the focus words)

Word association

Which focus word does this make you think of?

The horse looked agitated so the rider patted it on the back and whispered to it. (Reassurance)

Finish the sentence

The beginning of a sentence is given, including the focus word, and children should finish the sentence in a way that demonstrates understanding of the words meaning.

To give her son reassurance, she….

Here’s an example for just one word:

Low stakes testing

Having a variety of questions for each of the focus words, spaced out through the entire unit (and beyond) provides short, focused practise of manipulating the language and mastering the application of those tricky yet functional words that children need in order to comprehend text and communicate clearly and effectively.



Filed under Memory, Reading

Aspiring to Dance’s Delivery

Whilst planning an assembly on the Sochi Winter Olympics, I came across the BBC’s trailer for their coverage of the event. The chilling voice is that of Charles Dance, who plays the ruthless Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones. His diction combined with the rhetoric of the writer create a powerful piece.

How great it would be if we could encourage children to aspire to this level of performance. For sure, children need to see and hear excellence in oracy. But they also need to deliberately practise the strategies that great performers use. Dance makes deliberate decisions on the speed, pitch and volume of his words. He also pauses in carefully chosen places and elongates or stresses certain words. Experimenting with all of these strategies, comparing the effectiveness of a slower or faster speed, a higher or lower pitch, or a louder or quieter volume would be a good starting point.

In Talk for Writing, children internalise texts to build up an internal bank of effective language patterns and structures so that they can be adapted. This internalisation is usually supported by a text map, which acts as a retrieval cue for children, getting them to practise remembering the language patterns.

Children with an internal bank of quality texts, which are made up of effective rhetoric and sophisticated language patterns, are more effective writers. They’ll have a broader general knowledge and cultural capital, and if they have learned the strategies of great speakers, will be articulate too.

My intention now is to use Dance’s monologue to further fuel aspiration for great speaking and effective rhetoric. I want Dance’s delivery and the words he utters to be part of children’s internal banks of texts. Below is a text map that they’ll use to help them.






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Memory and Writerly Knowledge

Good writers draw on a bank of ideas about how to create a certain effect. Teaching children about what it is that writers do is an important part of the imitation stage of talk for writing. This post explains in more detail some ideas about constructing a writers’ toolkit with children so that they understand what a writer has done. The issue is, though, that if children are to internalise a writers’ toolkit, they will need to practise remembering it.


When a writers’ toolkit like the one pictured above is created and displayed on a working wall, children may well be able to look at it and use it. But this gives only the illusion that the toolkit is internalised. Re-reading and looking up information is not the most effective way of strengthening the encoding of information into memory or the retrieval process. Children remember what they think about, and like any learning, practice makes permanent. Children need to practise remembering items on a writers’ toolkit in order internalise it. Low stakes testing is one way of practising retrieving information. Effective retrieval, however, requires a good cue. This cue needs to be similar to whatever the cue may be when you want children to remember the information. It would be great if children could remember items on the writers’ toolkit at the point of writing so that they can make good decisions about their composition. Just before they write, the teacher will show children how to do it so it makes sense that the cue should be snippets of writing.


In the toolkit above, the beginning of the wording for each item is still visible. This cue is further strengthened by having a sentence or a sentence fragment which exemplifies the item that it is partially obscuring. You can zoom in on the photos to see specific examples.

Do children remember how to persuade from this retrieval practice? Yes, to varying degrees. But it will take time, spacing and further practice for children to securely internalise what it is that good writers do.

Related posts:
Tweaking Talk for Writing Text Maps
Knowledge, Memory and Writing
Knowledge, Memory and Reading
I don’t know what to write!
Writers’ Toolkit – Discussion


Filed under Reading, Writing

Tweaking Talk for Writing Text Maps

One of the staples of Talk for Writing is to help children internalise texts and the language patterns within them in order for them to be able to write effectively. One way of doing this is to get children to use a text map to help them retell a text. In the past, they have looked like this:


For many children, this worked. Some children, though, were still unable to internalise a text and indeed had difficulty writing one. In order to help these children, a few changes were made to the way that we used text maps. First, we arranged the text into a flow map where each box contained one sentence.


Children who do not yet have a secure understanding of sentence demarcation can be shown the beginnings and ends of sentences much more clearly when the text map is set out in this way. Also, the punctuation is included in the text map. Second, we split the text up to show a paragraph per page of flipchart paper, for similar reasons as splitting up sentences. Third, we wrote a simplified, shorter text for children working at earlier stages of English.


These children learned this version, but also used the longer version for work on reading comprehension and language development. A final tweak to text mapping has been using the app Explain Everything to create videos of teachers retelling texts.

Children cannot take working walls home with them to practise for homework, but they can watch the video, pause it at different points and retell the text. Children have also been using the text to practise writing accurately. They watch, pause and then write the text. They can then listen again the sentence they were working on to check the accuracy of their writing.

When children move up year groups, these videos can be looked at again, further embedding children’s banks of internalised texts that they can draw upon to write effectively.


Filed under Writing

Knowledge, Memory and Writing

Having considered how retrieval of knowledge that has been encoded to memory plays contributes to the teaching of reading, it seems logical to explore the role of knowledge and memory in the teaching of writing.  In this post, I refer to stages of the Talk for Writing process, which my school has developed extensively over the last few years.  I have not included the whole teaching sequence which makes up the Talk for Writing process, but you can find more information here.  To focus my thinking, I also at times had to refer to specific examples.  For this I have selected a unit of work on narrative, in particular work on warning tales.

Imitation Stage

Assessing Prior Knowledge / Skills

Before the unit of work, children would be set a short writing task so that the teacher could find out what it is that the children know and don’t yet know, and what they can do and can’t yet do. There’s a balance to be struck here: don’t give the children enough of a prompt and what they write could well be of a lower standard than they’re capable of. Similarly, give them too much of a prompt and what they write may not be a true reflection of their current stage of development. Any information garnered might well be pretty inaccurate, providing a false starting point. So, in an attempt to get that balance right, I’d suggest clarifying the intended effect of the writing. For example, the whole point of the writing is to make the reader think that something terrible will happen. Then, using image and discussion around what children already know, give them enough to write about. Doing this well before lesson one of the unit gives the teacher time to analyse the writing and plan accordingly, and it provides a bit of spacing which is known to be a desirable condition for learning.

Providing a Model Text

Once the teacher knows the needs of the children, a main text for the unit of work is selected. Most likely, this will need to be edited by the teacher to ensure children are shown excellence in the areas of writing that they need to develop. For example, the teacher may have noticed that children were not using complex sentences in their writing, or that they used them grammatically inaccurately. The teacher would edit in these features.

Children will memorise this text, so that they can retell it by heart. One reason for this is that effective writers have a wealth of language patterns to daw upon when choosing how to encode their thoughts on paper. Children who are read to regularly, read lots themselves and have quality conversations with adults will develop these language patterns. Unfortunately, there are a lot of children who don’t experience these things. As well as providing these experiences at school, memorising a model text can help children to encode the language patterns into memory. This is why it is important to edit in language patterns that you know children haven’t fully grasped.  They immediately begin work on correcting misconceptions as they repeatedly talk an accurate text.  Another reason for committing a text to memory is to aid the writing process (described in more detail later). One way of helping children to memorise a text is through repeated, structured retelling. To start with, the teacher talks the text. At each retelling, the children join in more and more and the teacher gradually says less and less until children can retell the story on their own. This is supported with a text map like the one below.


This is one paragraph from the warning tale text. Each sentence is in a box to help children who still haven’t mastered sentence demarcation, and each paragraph is on a separate sheet of flip chart paper for a similar reason. The text map plays the role of the retrieval cue – it’s used to prompt the retelling of the text. Its role as a retrieval cue also becomes important when children come to write their own versions of the text type (more on that later).

It goes without saying that some children will memorise texts quicker and more effectively than others. With this in mind, something I’m trialling from September is to make short videos which children can use to practise retelling, either at home or at school, like this:

So over the course of a week or two, children will have practised retelling the text many times, using the text map as a retrieval cue, to the point where they can retell it by heart. A quick point here about accuracy – I don’t think that they need to retell it word for word. There are many ways to put a message across and as long as it makes sense and is consistent with the original intended effect of the writing, I think that’s fine.

Reading as a reader

Children will have managed to commit the text to memory alongside various other activities and alongside reading more examples of the focus text type.  I have already written about the teaching of reading here. The brevity of this paragraph does not reflect the importance of the content – the link between good reading and effective writing is obvious. Retelling from memory and reading comprehension, in my experience, are complementary.

Reading as a writer

This is essentially analysing writing to figure out what it is that the writer did in order to achieve the intended effect on the reader. These two posts go into more detail. Firstly, the teacher would develop a writer’s toolkit with the children.  In the past, I have shown children how to analyse a text, collate the ideas and display the toolkit on the working wall. I’d refer to it when the children write and encourage them to do so to help them know what they could do to achieve the intended effect.

But I think I missed a trick here. The ideas gathered in a writers’ toolkit are what effective writers have stored away in memory. If children could encode these ideas into their long term memory, then when a suitable retrieval cue is presented they would practise retrieving this essential writers’ knowledge.  This would be great if they could learn to recall it at the point of writing, so the retrieval cue that I use with children needs to be something that is natural in the writing process.  For example, the teacher could model the writer’s thought process: “How could I make the reader think that something terrible will happen?” If at this point, children have practised recalling aspects of the writers’ toolkit, as well as some language patterns for specific ways of doing it, they would have taken a huge leap towards producing effective writing.

The question is, then, how do we get children to encode the information in a writers’ toolkit so that it can be accurately recalled at the point of writing? What follows are some ideas that I haven’t tried with my class but will do so in September.

Taking for granted the modelling explained in this previous post, I’ll focus more on what I’ll get children to do. One option is to get children to reconstruct the toolkit information in a different way. For example, if I model the thinking about generating a toolkit by annotating a text, I could get them to reconstruct that information in a thinking map. I’d remove the annotated model that I showed them, give them the plain texts and get them to practise retrieving the information.  That still won’t be enough for them to commit the toolkit to memory though. They’d need repeated, spaced practice for that. So I’d leave it a day or two, then drop in some multiple choice questions. I’d think carefully about the question because it has to be a good retrieval cue and one that I’ll use with children when they come to write. Something like:

To make the reader think that something terrible will happen, you could:
A. Make the setting dark
B. Make the main character do something relaxing
C. Reveal only part of the threat
D. Make the setting deserted

There is some playing around to do with the content of the options. It has been reported that ‘negative suggestion effect’ can be avoided through the use of explicit feedback. I think I’d also follow this retrieval practice with further study of the text type, perhaps by looking at a different text and finding either further ways to achieve the intended effect, or different language patterns for parts of the toolkit that children have already seen.

It may also be worth doing something similar with the language patterns for certain parts of the toolkit. For example:

Ways of making the setting sound deserted:
A. The place was empty.
B. Not a soul could be seen or heard.
C. Darkness hung in the corridor.

One way of providing feedback would be confirming options A and B as ways of making the setting sound deserted because it is clear that there is nobody else around, but that option C was more about making the setting sound dark.

Alternatively to the multiple choice model of retrieval practice, low stakes testing seems to be effective. A simple: “Write down as many ideas as you can… To make the reader think that something bad will happen, you could…” would work. Children could be encouraged to reconstruct the information in another different format, this time, say, a list.

Now, if children are going to encode a toolkit to memory and deliberately practise retrieving it, spaced over time, there are implications.  Previously, units of work would follow this pattern over a few weeks:

Assess prior knowledge

Work on vocabulary and required knowledge

Learning the text to retell by heart

Reading comprehension

Reading other texts

Revision of previous text types using the content of the current text

Reading as a writer (developing toolkits, planning an adaptation of the main text to write independently)

Writing own version of the main text

Writing text type in a different context

Following this model, there is very little time between generating the toolkit and children writing.  Certainly not enough time for encoding to memory and some spaced, deliberate practice of retrieving the toolkit.  So, one solution is to develop the toolkit cumulatively over the course of the imitation stage rather than have the work massed at the end of the stage.

Innovation and Invention Stages

When the teacher is confident that children know enough to write well, we move into the stage where children will write an adapted version of the text that they have memorised.  This is where the text map’s role as a retrieval cue becomes important.  If the children can look at the text map and recall the model text, it can easily be tweaked to support them to write an adaptation.  For example, if the children have learned the warning tale, which is set at a canal, the setting could be changed to, say, an abandoned warehouse.  Part of the planning process at the end of the imitation stage would be to amend the text map to support this.  Every time there is a reference to the canal, I’d cover it with a post it note and draw a quick symbol for its warehouse equivalent that children will need when they write.  When children see the text map at the point of writing, they’ll be recalling the general pattern of the text, the key language patterns, and also changing it to a different context.

When I model the writing, I’ll also be referring to the writers’ toolkit that we developed and the accompanying possibilities for writing a particular idea.  This bit is very important, because the next time the children write, I’d want to remove a layer of structure to teach independence – I’d remove the text map so that the children are left with the writers’ toolkit as well as any images or saved ideas that relate to the further change of context.

When the unit of work comes to a natural end, I’d plan in some revision sessions as part of the next units of work which give children more, yet further spaced practice of recalling both the text (Remember we learned this warning tale?  Let’s see if we can still tell the story…) and the writers’ toolkit (Remember we learned how to make the reader think that something terrible will happen?  Work with your partner to write down as many ways as you can that could have this effect…).  But they would also be given chances to apply this.  For example, at some point within the warning tale unit of work, we could revise some persuasive writing.  After practising recalling the persuasion toolkit, children could then write in role – What would you say to the main character to persuade him to heed his mother’s warning?

Memorisation and retrieval practice could be effective in children’s development of writing, particularly when it comes to learning texts and internalising what it is that writers could do to achieve a certain effect.  After all, knowing a range of texts and language patterns, plus having a secure idea of what could be written are two domains of knowledge that effective writers benefit from having.


Filed under Reading, Writing

Making deliberate practice work

Previously, I have written about the need to turn ideas about deliberate practice as part of CPD into firm actions. I have, in the last week, attempted to make this work in two different situations, with varied success. This post is my analysis of why one situation worked better than the other.

The first session I tried out was for a group of 30-40 teachers and head teachers. It was part of a training day in Talk for Writing, specifically around developing writers’ toolkits with children, which I have written about here. After a demonstration of a couple of variations of how it could be done, there was some discussion about what the teacher actually does to generate a writers’ toolkit with children. This was fine and understood well by the delegates, so the next stage of the plan was to set up some deliberate practice, which I explained using the following model.


And it didn’t work. I can think of a few reasons. In Doug Lemov’s book, Practice Perfect, his rule number 24 is: Apply first, then reflect. The delegates, either through having a lot to talk about following what they had seen and heard, or through avoidance of potentially awkward acting in role, did a lot of reflecting. Having started the process in earnest, the first moment that arose that caused a discussion was grabbed and this disrupted the intended deliberate practice. Alas, I was not skilful enough to redirect such a large group and the moment passed. Plus it was lunchtime.

Lesson learned. It’s very difficult to keep a large group focused on deliberate practice.

I had an altogether different opportunity to try out setting up some deliberate practice later in the week. Having observed a colleague’s maths lesson (Year 1, division), I selected an aspect of what the teacher did, that if tweaked, could have been great. It was to do with explicitly addressing a common misconception. Here’s what I wrote as a plan:




I talked through each part with the teacher and asked them to talk through each bit, writing / drawing on a prepared IWB file as necessary. When the teacher presented effectively, I said so and asked them to repeat that bit. When the teacher presented something ineffectively, I referred to my plan, suggested or modelled an improvement, then they did that bit again. Some bits worked better than others. I thought I knew the content very well, but clearly not well enough for all the subtleties of what the teacher could have said. As such, my feedback could have been clearer at points.

Next, I’ll find 5 minutes a couple of times over the next week to run that practice drill again. Then, the teacher will have a go with a small group of children, with me coaching and offering live advice which can be acted upon immediately. Finally, having experienced the process, I intend to use that teacher in a larger group with other colleagues who teach the same year group, getting then to deliberately practise the same explanation frequently over a period of time then applying to their own classes.

So, my advice to anyone in a similar situation would be to start working with one person, in order to manage distractions. Keep the content simple and plan for the most common responses that would need feedback.

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